Washington, DC — In an effort to restore protections to the beleaguered Louisiana black bear, a lawsuit has been filed in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana. The suit seeks to return the bear to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s (FWS) List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife, from which it was removed in March 2016.
The Louisiana black bear (Ursus americanus luteolus) is one of 16 subspecies of the American black bear. It is often referred to as “Teddy’s Bear,” because President Theodore Roosevelt once famously refused to shoot one that had been tied to a tree, saying it would not be sporting.
The lawsuit disputes the FWS claim of “recovery” for the Louisiana black bear. The agency admits that as few as 500 of the bears may survive today. But even that number includes bears that do not belong to the native subspecies but to an alien population descended from bears brought down from Minnesota in the 1960s for sport hunting purposes or are hybrids between the native and alien groups. The suit attacks the FWS attempts to pass off these other animals as true Louisiana black bears as its rationale for contending that recovery goals had been met for this unique subspecies.
Today, the Louisiana black bear has lost 99% of its historic population and more than 97% of its historic range. At least 80,000 Louisiana black bears once inhabited an area of at least 120,000 square miles, covering all of Louisiana, much of Mississippi, eastern Texas, and southern Arkansas. Today, the remaining animals reside on just 2,800 square miles and are split mainly into three widely separated populations, with the native subspecies occurring in the Tensas River Basin and Lower Atchafalaya River Basin, and the alien group in the Upper Atchafalaya River Basin; some also live in western Mississippi.
Bringing the lawsuit are Atchafalaya Basinkeeper, Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association West, Sierra Club and its Delta Chapter, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), Healthy Gulf, and individual plaintiffs Ronald M. Nowak, Harold Schoeffler, and Dr. Michael J. Caire. A previous suit was dismissed earlier this year on technical grounds. The groups and individuals filing suit today have advocated for the bear for decades; Harold Schoeffler petitioned for the bear’s listing over 30 years ago in 1987.
Besides hybridization, the Louisiana black bear faces loss of remaining habitat and isolation of the coastal population attributable to further development along Highway 90 and future eastward extension of Interstate 49 down that same route. In addition, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is exploring the possibility of resuming bear hunts. Notably, the Safari Club intervened in the prior suit to support the delisting and will likely do so again to preserve the option of opening a hunting season for the bear, a possibility which would be precluded by relisting the bear under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The plaintiffs filing suit today include avid hunters and fishermen who live and recreate in bear habitat, and who understand that with present low population numbers, each individual bear remains critical to the survival of the subspecies. These groups and individuals support ethical hunting of wildlife, but recognize that it is not presently possible to ethically hunt the Louisiana black bear with such low numbers and substantial threats remaining. Only through proper management and protection under the ESA will the bear ever reach sufficient numbers to support a future hunt.